In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Byzantine Art and Architecture

  • Introduction
  • Major Exhibition Catalogues
  • Secular Arts

Art History Byzantine Art and Architecture
Ellen C. Schwartz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0042


Byzantine art and architecture may be defined as the artistic production of the eastern Mediterranean region that developed into an orthodox set of societies after the relocation of the Roman capital to Constantinople in 330 CE. While there is a debate about the use of the term “Roman” for emperors as late as Justinian (r. 526–565), the churches and their decoration in Ravenna, as well as the 6th-century purple Bible and Gospel manuscripts clearly show the beginnings of the new iconographic and stylistic concerns that we call “Byzantine.” While Byzantium itself was conquered when the capital fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the types of buildings and the traditions of monumental and portable arts continued on, even to the present day in places such as Mount Athos. Thus, it is hard to define the era with clear-cut beginning and endpoints. It is similarly difficult to define Byzantine architecture and art in geographic terms. The quintessential middle Byzantine church type, the cross-in-square, continues in Russian churches in contemporary times. Iconography and elements of style in icon painting are preserved as well. The orthodox traditions that are expressed in these artistic forms cover much of eastern Europe; autocephalous churches form part of the orthodox confession despite the differences in language as well as the addition of some local saints. Areas included in what has been called the “Byzantine Commonwealth” include Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Russia, and parts of Albania and Romania, among others. The relationship of the style to Italy has never been satisfactorily explored. Byzantine art and architecture have largely been studied in terms of religious buildings, decoration, reception, and liturgical use. A growing interest in archaeological studies, along with new approaches such as the study of gender, light, and sound (both vocal and musical) in Byzantine art are yielding significant results. Recently, secular arts have begun to form a focus of examination. New technologies have allowed closer viewing of objects such as ivories; modern approaches have also been applied to the consideration of Byzantine buildings and artifacts, yielding innovative interpretations. Although a tiny fraction of what we believe was created still exists, Byzantine art has continued to fascinate viewers as seen by a number of recent exhibitions worldwide.

Byzantine Art

Several introductory surveys offer overviews, including of architecture, that can be used as textbooks in undergraduate courses. These vary in their readability, quality of illustrations, and price. Some contain bibliographies that may serve as a starting point for more advanced students’ research. Both older and newer texts, such as Talbot Rice 1997, Lazarev 1967, Beckwith 1986, and Mathews 1998, sometimes include specialized sections relating to the author’s interests; each includes something the other does not. More recent texts, for example Lowden 1997, reflect ideological trends, such as a preponderance of interest in context, while largely ignoring style, whereas others, for example Cormack 2000, contain mini-essays on certain themes. Durand 1999 offers very beautiful photographs that make the field attractive and that allow detailed study of certain monuments. Vasilakē-Karakatsanē 1966 offers a wide array of bibliographic entries for beginning reading as well as research at all levels.

  • Beckwith, John. Early Christian and Byzantine Art. 4th ed. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1986.

    This chronological survey discusses periods by what the author identifies as a major theme of each age. Exclusively black-and-white illustrations include all media. Architecture is mentioned only as the setting for wall decoration, as the series includes a separate volume on architecture. An unusual feature is the inclusion of contemporary Italian art.

  • Cormack, Robin. Byzantine Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    Somewhat less accessible than similar texts. Within a chronological framework, it delves into issues such as the transformation of the sanctuary, which may be of interest to more advanced art history students. Discusses architecture briefly, with few pictures and no plans. Illustrated with black-and-white and good color photographs. For upper-level surveys.

  • Durand, Jannic. Byzantine Art. Paris: Finest SA/Éditions Pierre Terrail, 1999.

    An oversized survey with beautiful photographs, mostly in color. Comprehensive, covering all 4th-to-14th-century media, with plans and details. Occasional thematic subheadings (such as, “Luxury and Crafts: Imperial Prestige”) give understanding and context to objects. For everyone.

  • Lazarev, Victor Nikitich. Storia della pittura bizantina. Turin, Italy: G. Einaudi, 1967.

    A translation from the original Russian multivolume work, this early survey is particularly strong on middle Byzantine work as well as later icons from Russia. While numerous, illustrations are small and not particularly crisp. Extensive footnotes make this work useful for further research.

  • Lowden, John. Early Christian and Byzantine Art. London: Phaidon, 1997.

    A comprehensive survey with good plans and photographs. This volume is very strong on iconography and historical context. The manuscript section is comprehensive. There is a dearth of discussion of style throughout the volume; however, this limits its usefulness as a classroom text.

  • Mathews, Thomas F. Byzantium: From Antiquity to the Renaissance. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998.

    This book is arranged thematically, covering topics such as Constantinople and the secular domestic world. Architecture and the arts are integrated within each chapter. It incorporates the most up-to-date research; examples include the development of the icon from earliest times and the reinterpretation of Cappadocian complexes as secular rather than monastic. Less accessible to younger students without a grounding in world history and geography.

  • Talbot Rice, David. Art of the Byzantine Era. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

    While somewhat out of date, this survey includes several unusual sections, including Armenian and Georgian art and architecture as well as late Byzantine and Russian art. Includes discussion of context. Surprising number of textiles included. Black-and-white and color plates of varying quality illustrate this volume for all readers.

  • Vasilakē-Karakatsanē, Agapē. Bibliographie de l’art byzantin et post-byzantin. Athens, Greece: Comité National Hellénique de l’Association Internationale d’Études du Sud-Est Européen, 1966.

    This resource includes indexes of major periodicals and bibliographies by topic most directly relevant to the study of art and architecture and others useful but often not included in this type of collection, such as prosopography and topography.

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